As Kevin Noonan discussed in last week’s Spring Training Update, the performance and progress of Shin-Soo Choo in centerfield will be one of the more intriguing storylines for the Reds this month and as we enter the regular season in April. And while there is very little collective doubt that Choo will be an upgrade at the plate over erstwhile centerfielder and professional air-shifter Drew Stubbs, it’s the defensive side of the argument that has Reds fans mildly concerned. If there was one area at which Stubbs was consistently adept—aside from wailing madly on oxygen particles—it was manning the center of Cincy’s outfield, tracking down deep flys and snagging fast-sinking liners before they found empty grass. How Choo handles himself with the glove will be closely and eagerly watched in the near future. He doesn’t necessarily have to reach Stubbs’s level of proficiency in the outfield, as long he makes up for it with his bat.
But another interesting wrinkle in the centerfield transition is developing, admittedly propagated more by the media than the team itself. Billy Hamilton, the 22-year-old prospect with roadrunner speed, has already been crowned the club’s centerfielder-of-the-future. Yet because of his youth and mystical talents—and possibly because it’s spring training and creating interesting scenarios is necessary in order to keep the fans invested—Hamilton’s future is approaching faster than initially indicated.
Early word out of Arizona is that Hamilton has handled the move to center quite well (though to be fair, the same goes for Choo). It’s doubtful that successfully shagging a few spring flyballs has altered the thinking of Reds GM Walt Jocketty, who made it mighty clear a few weeks back that Hamilton will be the regular centerfielder in Triple-A while Choo keeps the spot warm this season in the big leagues. But that also hasn’t stunted the media’s primping of Hamilton as a difference-maker in the majors this season.
Numerous national baseball writers, including Grantland’s Jonah Keri and SI’s Michael Beller, are tossing Hamilton’s name out as a potential fantasy baseball sleeper and lynchpin call-up for what the Reds hope is another playoff run. No one is arguing with Jocketty’s assessment that Hamilton will start in Triple-A, but rather suggesting that it’s only a matter of time before Hamilton establishes himself in Cincinnati’s lineup. A jolt in late May, an All-Star break promotion, an added weapon for an autumn push; one way or another, plenty of baseball clairvoyants see red stockings in Hamilton’s 2013 outlook.
This suggests a couple scenarios. Either the Choo acquisition is a less-than-one-season stopgap—which seems unlikely, since the team threw $7 million and change at him for the year after dealing away Stubbs and prospect Didi Gregorius—or the team isn’t quite sold on Ryan Ludwick in left—equally unlikely, after re-signing him to a two-year, $15 million deal in December. Of course there’s always the potential for an injury, or merely utilizing Hamilton as a fourth outfielder/pinch-run specialist (kick rocks, Chris Heisey). Though if that’s the case, the current predictions of Hamilton’s contributions would ultimately prove a tad inflated.
There’s a bevy of things to keep an eye on in the early going for the Reds this season, but the impending Billy Hamilton coming-out-party will be a fun wait-and-see narrative a few months down the schedule. And regardless of where he ends up, we can at least be sure he will get there pretty damn fast.